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Speeches from the 2008 Presidential Campaign

Barack Obama
A Plan for Education: Remarks in Ohio
Dayton, Ohio
September 9, 2008

Yesterday was a special day around my house. It was back-to-school day for my girls. Sasha started second grade and Malia began 5th. I know Malia was really embarrassed when I walked her to the classroom, but I did it anyway because she's still Daddy's girl. And seeing them back at school was a reminder not only that another year had passed and that they're growing up a little faster than I'd sometimes like. It was also a reminder of all the other parents who are dropping their children off at school, and all the other kids who are getting ready for another year of classes.

Every four years, we hear candidates talk about the vital importance of education; about how improving our schools is key to the future of our children and the future of our country. Every four years, we hear about how this time, we're going to make it an urgent national priority. Remember the 2000 election, when George W. Bush promised to be the "education President"?

But just as with energy independence and health care, the urgency of upgrading public education for the 21st century has been talked to death in Washington. And that failure to act has put our nation in jeopardy.

Well, the day of reckoning is here. Our kids and our country can't afford four more years of neglect and indifference. At this defining moment in our history, America faces few more urgent challenges than preparing our children to compete in a global economy. The decisions our leaders make about education in the coming years will shape our future for generations to come. They will help determine not only whether our children have the chance to fulfill their God-given potential, or whether our workers have the chance to build a better life for their families, but whether we, as a nation, will remain in the 21st century the kind of global economic leader that we were in the 20th century.

The rising importance of education reflects the new demands of our new world. In recent decades, revolutions in communications and information technology have broken down barriers that once kept countries and markets apart, creating a single, global economy that is more integrated and interconnected than ever before. In this economy, companies can plant their jobs wherever there's an internet connection and someone willing to do the work, meaning that children here in Dayton are growing up competing with children not only in Detroit, but in Delhi as well.

What matters, then, isn't what you do or where you live, but what you know. When two-thirds of all new jobs require a higher education or advanced training, knowledge is the most valuable skill you can sell. It's not only a pathway to opportunity, but a prerequisite. Without a good pre-school education, our children are less likely to keep up with their peers. Without a high school diploma, you're likely to make about three times less than a college graduate. And without a college degree or industry certification, it's harder and harder to find a job that can help you support your family and keep up with rising costs.

But it's not just that a world-class education is essential for workers to compete and win, it's that an educated workforce is essential for America to compete and win. Without a workforce trained in math, science, and technology and the other skills of the 21st century, our companies will innovate less, our economy will grow less, and our nation will be less competitive. If we want to outcompete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today.

If we want to keep building the cars of the future here in America, we can't afford to see the number of PhDs in engineering climbing in China, South Korea, and Japan even as it's dropped here in America; we can't afford a future where our high school students rank near the bottom in math and science, and our high school drop-out rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world.

If we want to build a 21st century infrastructure and repair our crumbling roads and bridges, we can't afford a future where a third of all 4th graders and a fifth of all 8th graders can't do basic math, and black and Latino students are even further behind; where elementary school kids are only getting an average 25 minutes of science each day when over 80% of the fastest-growing jobs require some knowledge in math and science.

If we want to see middle class incomes rising like they did in the 1990's, we can't afford a future where so many Americans are priced out of college; where only 20 percent of our students are prepared to take college-level English, math, and science; where millions of jobs are going unfilled because Americans don't have the skills to work them; and where barely one in ten low-income students will ever get their college degree.

That kind of future is economically untenable for America. It is morally unacceptable for our children. And it is not who we are as a nation.

We are a nation that has always renewed our system of education to meet the challenges of a new time. Lincoln created the land grant colleges to ensure the success of the union he was fighting to save. Generations of leaders built mandatory public schools to prepare our children for the changing needs of our nation. And Eisenhower doubled federal investment in education after the Soviets beat us to space.

That is the kind of leadership we must show today.

But that's not the leadership we've been getting from Washington. For decades, they've been stuck in the same tired debates over education that have crippled our progress and left schools and parents to fend for themselves. It's been Democrat versus Republican, vouchers versus the status quo, more money versus more reform. There's partisanship and there's bickering, but there's no understanding that both sides have good ideas that we'll need to implement if we hope to make the changes our children need. And we've fallen further and further behind as a result.

If we're going to make a real and lasting difference for our future, we have to be willing to move beyond the old arguments of left and right and take meaningful, practical steps to build an education system worthy of our children and our future.

In the past few weeks, my opponent has taken to talking about the need for change and reform in Washington, where he has been part of the scene for about three decades.

And in those three decades, he has not done one thing to truly improve the quality of public education in our country. Not one real proposal or law or initiative. Nothing.

Instead, he marched with the ideologues in his party in opposing efforts to hire more teachers, and expand Head Start, and make college more affordable. You don't reform our schools by opposing efforts to fully fund No Child Left Behind. And you certainly don't reform our education system by calling to close the Department of Education. That would just make it harder for us to give out financial aid, harder for us to keep track of how our schools are doing, and lead to widening inequality in who gets a college degree.

That is not my idea of reform. That is not my idea of change. That is not a plan to help your kids compete with those kids in China and India.

After three decades of indifference on education, do you really believe that John McCain is going to make a difference now?

John McCain doesn't get it. He doesn't understand that our success as a nation depends on our success in education.

I do.

That's why last November, I proposed an education agenda that moves beyond party and ideology and focuses instead on what will make the most difference in a child's life. My plan calls for giving every child a world-class education from the day they're born until the day they graduate from college. It's a plan that starts with investing in early-childhood education because we know that children in these programs are more likely to score higher in reading and math, more likely to graduate high school and attend college, more likely to hold a job and earn more in that job. And it's a plan that will finally put a college degree within reach for anyone who wants one by providing a $4,000 tax credit to any middle class student who's willing to serve their community or their country.

Of course, we also have to fix the broken promises of No Child Left Behind. Now, I believe that the goals of this law were the right ones. Making a promise to educate every child with an excellent teacher is right. Closing the achievement gap that exists in too many cities and rural areas is right. More accountability is right. Higher standards are right.

But I'll tell you what's wrong with No Child Left Behind. Forcing our teachers, our principals, and our schools to accomplish all of this without the resources they need is wrong. Promising high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leaving the support and the pay for those teachers behind is wrong. Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong.

And by the way - don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test. Let's finally help our teachers and principals develop a curriculum and assessments that teach our kids to become more than just good test-takers. We need assessments that can improve achievement by including the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem-solving that our children will need to compete in a 21st century knowledge economy.

We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind. We must provide the funding we were promised, and give our states the resources they need, and finally meet our commitment to special education. But Democrats have to realize that fixing No Child Left Behind is not enough to prepare our children for a global economy.

We need a new vision for a 21st century education - one where we aren't just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation; where we're not just investing more money, but demanding more reform; where parents take responsibility for their children's success; where our schools and government are accountable for results; where we're recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of new teachers, and students are excited to learn because they're attending schools of the future; and where we expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to graduate college and get a good paying job.

It's time to ask ourselves why other countries are outperforming us in education. Because it's not that their kids are smarter than ours - it's that they're being smarter about how to educate their kids. They're spending less time teaching things that don't matter and more time teaching things that do. Their students are spending more time in school, and they're setting higher expectations.

That's what we need to be doing - because America isn't a country that accepts second place. When I'm President, we'll fight to make sure we're once again first in the world when it comes to high school graduation rates. We'll push our kids to study harder and aim higher. I've worked with Republican Senator Jim DeMint on a bill that would challenge high school students to take college-level courses - and make sure low-income neighborhoods and rural communities have access to those courses. And I'll make it the law of the land when I'm President. And we'll also set a goal of increasing the number of high school students taking college-level or AP courses by 50 percent in the coming years. Because I believe that when we challenge our kids to succeed, they will.

A while back, I was talking with my friend Arne Duncan, who runs the Chicago Public Schools. He was explaining how he'd managed to increase the number of kids taking and passing AP courses in Chicago over the last few years. What he said was, our kids aren't smarter than they were three years ago; our expectations for them are just higher. Well, I think it's time we raised expectations for our kids all across this country, and that's what we'll do when I'm President of the United States.

The second thing we need to do is make sure that we're preparing our kids for the 21st century economy by bringing our school system into the 21st century. Part of what that means is fostering the kinds of schools that will help prepare our kids, which is why I'm calling for the creation of an Innovative Schools Fund. This fund will invest in schools like the Austin Polytechnical Academy, which is located in a part of Chicago that's been hard hit by the decline in manufacturing over the past few decades. Thanks to partnerships with a number of companies, a curriculum that prepares students for a career in engineering, and a requirement that students graduate with at least two industry certifications, Austin Polytech is bringing hope back to the community. And that's the kind of model we'll replicate across the country when I'm President of the United States.

Giving our parents real choices about where to send their kids to school also means showing the same kind of leadership at the national level that I did in Illinois when I passed a law to double the number of charter schools in Chicago. That is why as President, I'll double the funding for responsible charter schools. Now, I know you've had a tough time with for-profit charter schools here in Ohio. That is why I'll work with Governor Strickland to hold for-profit charter schools accountable, and I'll work with all our nation's governors to hold all our charter schools accountable. Charter schools that are successful will get the support they need to grow. And charters that aren't will get shut down. And we'll help ensure that more of our kids have access to quality afterschool and summer school and extended school days for students who need it - because if they can do that in China, we can do that right here in the United States of America.

As we bring our school system into the 21st century, we also have to bring our schools into the 21st century. Because while technology has transformed just about every aspect of our lives - from the way we travel to the way we communicate to the way we look after our health - one of the places where we've failed to seize its full potential is in the classroom.

Imagine a future where our children are more motivated because they aren't just learning on blackboards but on new whiteboards with digital touch screens; where every student in a classroom has a laptop at their desk; where they don't just do book reports but design PowerPoint presentations; where they don't just write papers but build websites; where research isn't done just by taking a book out of the library but by emailing experts in the field; and where teachers are less a source of knowledge than a coach for how best to use it. By fostering innovation, we can help make sure every school in America is a school of the future.

That's what we'll do when I'm President. We'll help schools integrate technology into their curriculum so we can make sure public school students are fluent in the digital language of the 21st century economy. We'll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork, and critical thinking and communication skills - because that's how we'll make sure they're prepared for today's workplace.

But no matter how many choices we're giving our parents or how much technology we're using in our schools or how tough our classes are, none of it will make much difference if we don't also recruit, prepare, and retain outstanding teachers. Because from the moment a child enters a school, the most important factor in their success is the person standing at the front of the classroom.

That's why last year, I proposed a new Service Scholarship program that will recruit top talent into the profession, and place these new teachers in overcrowded districts and struggling rural towns, or hard-to-staff subjects like special education in schools across the nation. To prepare these new teachers, I'll create more Teacher Residency Programs that will build on a law I recently passed and train 30,000 high-quality teachers a year, especially in math and science. To support our teachers, we'll expand mentoring programs that pair experienced, successful teachers with new recruits.

And when our teachers succeed in making a real difference in our children's lives, we should reward them for it by finding new ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. We can do this. From Prince George's County in Maryland to Denver, Colorado, we're seeing teachers and school boards coming together to design performance pay plans.

So yes, we must give teachers every tool they need to be successful. But we also need to give every child the assurance that they'll have the teacher they need to be successful. That means setting a firm standard - teachers who are doing a poor job will get extra support, but if they still don't improve, they'll be replaced. Because as good teachers are the first to tell you, if we're going to attract the best teachers to the profession, we can't settle for schools filled with poor teachers.

Now, I know this sounds like a lot, but we can do it all - we can increase the number of students taking college-level courses; expand innovation and school choice; invest in the schools of tomorrow; and put a quality teacher in every classroom - all for the cost of just a few days in Iraq. And we'll pay for that cost by carefully winding down the war in Iraq, by ending no-bid contracts, and by eliminating wasteful spending. So we'll make these investments, but we'll do it without mortgaging our children's future on an even larger amount of debt. We'll do it responsibly.

This leads me to my final point - as President, I will lead a new era of accountability in education. But I don't just want to hold our teachers accountable. I want you to hold our government accountable. I want you to hold me accountable. That's why every year I'm President, I will report back to you on the progress our schools are making. Because it's time to stop passing the buck on education, and start accepting responsibility, and that's the kind of example I'll set as President of the United States.

Accountability in Washington starts by making sure that every tax dollar spent by the Department of Education is being spent wisely. When I'm President, programs that work will get more money. Programs that don't will get less. And we'll send a team to fix bad programs by replacing bad managers. Because your tax dollars should only be funding programs and grants that actually make a difference in a child's education.

But in the end, responsibility for our children's success doesn't start in Washington. It starts in our homes. It starts in our families. Because no education policy can replace a parent who's involved in their child's education from day one, who makes sure their children are in school on time, helps them with their homework after dinner, and attends those parent-teacher conferences. No government program can turn off the TV, or put away the video games, or read to your children.

But we can help parents do a better job. That's why I'll create a parent report card that will show you whether your kid is on the path to college. We'll help schools post student progress reports online so you can get a regular update on what kind of grades your child is getting on tests and quizzes from week to week. If your kid is falling behind, or playing hooky, or isn't on track to go to college or compete for that good paying job, it will be up to you to do something about it.

So yes, we need to hold our government accountable. Yes, we have to hold our schools accountable. But we also have to hold ourselves accountable.

You know, when I dropped my daughters off at school yesterday, I couldn't help but think about all America had done over the years to give me and my family a good education. This is a country that put my grandfather through college on the GI Bill after he left Patton's Army. This is a country that drew my father - like so many immigrants - across an ocean in search of a college degree. And this is a country that let the child of a teenage mom and an absent father reach for his dreams.

You see, I wasn't born with a lot of advantages. But I was given love, and support, and an education that put me on a pathway to success. The same was true for Michelle. She came from a blue collar family on the south side of Chicago. Even though her father had multiple sclerosis, he went to work every day at the local water filtration plant to support his family. And Michelle and her brother were able to go to a great college, and reach a little further for their dreams.

So I know that the only reason Michelle and I are where we are today is because this country we love gave us the chance at an education. And the reason I'm running for President is to give every single American that same chance; to give the young sisters out there born with a gift for invention the chance to become the next Orville and Wilbur Wright; to give the young boy out there who wants to create a life-saving cure the chance to become the next Jonas Salk; and to give the child out there whose imagination has been sparked by the wonders of the internet the chance to become the next Bill Gates.

Our future depends on it. When the story of our time is told, I don't want it to be said that China seized this moment to reform its education system, but the United States did not. I don't want it to be said that India led the way on innovation, but the United States did not. I want it to be said that we rose to meet this challenge, and educated our people to become the most highly-skilled workers in the world - just like we always have been.

Because I know that if we can just bring our education system into the 21st century, not only will our children be able to fulfill their God-given potential, and our families be able to live out their dreams; not only will our schools out-educate the world and our workers outcompete the world; not only will our companies innovate more and our economy grow more, but at this defining moment, we will do what previous generations of Americans have done - and unleash the promise of our people, unlock the promise of our country, and make sure that America remains a beacon of opportunity and prosperity for all the world. Thank you.



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